Ask 10 college football fans, coaches, and experts who the five best Group of Five coaches are, and you’ll end up with a wide collection of different rankings. I try my hand at my top five, knowing plenty of people will disagree with them.
That’s OK! The Group of Five has a number of exceptional coaches, including rising stars in the Sun Belt like Troy’s Jon Sumrall, Marshall’s Charles Huff, and South Alabama’s Kane Wommack. Veteran coaches like Wyoming’s Craig Bohl have decades of coaching success.
It’s hard to narrow a list to five, but here’s my quick take ahead of the 2023 season.
1. Willie Fritz, Tulane
I give Fritz the top nod for a couple of reasons. First, Fritz has won at multiple stops. That’s a theme on my list. Look, some coaches have significant success with one program, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Winning across multiple levels of college football, however, indicates to me that a coach has elite characteristics. Fritz has been successful at Central Missouri, Sam Houston, Georgia Southern, and Tulane.
Secondly, recency bias! Tulane was the best Group of Five team a season ago. I’ll put Fritz atop this list entering the 2023 season given his coaching history and 2022 record.
2. Jeff Traylor, UTSA
I’m really high on Traylor, who used to be an elite high school coach. In three seasons with UTSA, the Roadrunners are 30-10. Perhaps the only knock on his resume is the lack of a bowl victory, but that’ll come sooner rather than later.
UTSA figures to be solid again this season thanks to key returning veterans and a strong recruiting class. Traylor will garner major interest from Power Five teams in coming years, in no small part due to his ability to recruit Texas well.
3. Tom Herman, Florida Atlantic
Back at the Group of Five level, Herman is 54-22 as the head coach of Houston and Texas. Florida Atlantic’s men’s basketball team is drawing the recent headlines, but the football program’s future outlook is just as bright under Herman. Look for the head coach to lead the Owls to immediate success before possibly jumping back to the Power Five level.
4. Curt Cignetti, James Madison
Call this JMU alumnus biased all you want, Cignetti can coach. He’s 108-34 as a head coach, winning consistently as a Division II, FCS, and FBS head coach. He led the Dukes to an 8-3 campaign in their first year of FBS play, and they’ll enter 2023 with high expectations having gone 41-8 in Cignetti’s four seasons at the helm.
Cignetti has been a key assistant at Power Five programs in the past, including Alabama, and he’s about as underrated a coach as any in the country.
5. Mike Houston, East Carolina
A former JMU head coach, Mike Houston’s career resume is underrated. He went 29-8 at Lenoir-Rhyne, leading the program to the Division II national title game in his final season. The Citadel went 14-11 in his two seasons, including a 9-4 mark in his second year. He won the FCS national title in his first season at JMU, going 37-6 over three years.
He’s matched or improved ECU’s winning percentage in each of his four seasons with the Pirates, including an 8-5 mark and a bowl victory in 2022. With the AAC arguably weakening after recent league changes, Houston could soon lead ECU to a 10-win campaign.
Honorable mentions: Troy Calhoun (Air Force), Jeff Monken (Army), and Jamey Chadwell (Liberty)
Bennett Conlin is a college football contributor for HERO Sports, and he works full-time covering sports betting industry news and legislation for Sports Handle and US Bets.